Authors: Neal Asher
Tags: #Fool's Mate, #Fool's Mate
MINDGAMES: FOOL’S MATE
First published 199
2 by Club 199.
This edition published by Neal Asher on
Copyright © Neal Asher.
The right of Neal Asher to be identified as the
author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance
with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
MINDGAMES: FOOL'S MATE
ith a casual assurance Jason Carroll stooped and shrugged his shoulders forwards so his jacket bulked loose, but the automatic still hung as heavy as an accusation in its shoulder holster, its barrel warm against his chest. He should have dumped it in the river with the silencer, but then he had only dumped that because it was old and needed repacking and he knew where he could get a better one. Anyway, he was not going to panic just because there had been a couple of close calls during the hit. He scrubbed at the spots of blood on his sleeve then looked round the crowded high street. No watchers, no pursuers.
As he stepped from the kerb he knew with smug assurance that he had evaded them. He was better than them, that was all. He had the training. The bus
, however , he could neither evade nor avoid, and no amount of training could fend off several tons of diesel accelerated steel. Moreover, he did not even see it. He was facing in the wrong direction. When he heard the rumble of the engine and the squealing of brakes and began to turn he was too late. As it knocked him to the ground and its wheel crushed his chest his last coherent thought in life was,
Nothing else seemed appropriate.
There was no pain. His punctured heart beat once or twice pumping salty-warm blood out of his mouth onto the tarmac, and as that one thought occurred to him he knew viscerally that this was it. There would be blackness, nothing. He lay there thinking nothing, readying himself for a state of nothingness, waiting. The next thing he knew he found himself gazing down on the crowd gathering round his body. He recognized two of his pursuers nodding in satisfaction and walking away. They confirmed what he believed: he was dead, yet, no black nothingness had come to engulf him. He found this vaguely disappointing, and now began to entertain nagging doubts.
s there an afterlife?
He had heard of out-of-the-body experiences and considered them to be merely delusion. In his line of work he had seen and caused quite a lot of death and it had always seemed pretty final, now though, now he was beginning to wonder.
He began to drift upwards, away from his body, which was a relief. He could have gone down. Next, a tunnel of light lay before him and a feeling of extension, as if he were pulling into an infinitely long string, then being wound in far away.
Fisher of men? Oh please not. Not the harps.
It occurred to him that he was not treating his situation with the seriousness it deserved. Perhaps, he surmised, it was the lack of a body and its needs that did that. He became completely detached, merely an awareness.
I exist, I am,
was all that he knew for a time.
out of a blank numbness, Carroll became aware of feeling.
I have a body,
he decided, with wonder. Then he wondered if he would find himself in a hospital bed, all his cynicisms proved true and the only people waiting to reel him in being members of Her Majesty's Constabulary. He opened his eyes, then shut them quickly. But closed eyes did not erase the images, and he could certainly fell that he was not lying down.
Did a bus really hit me? Or have I just gone stark staring mad?
He opened his eyes again. Nothing had changed. This particular delusion had distinctly worrying tenacity and, still of logical mind, Carroll decided it would be best to treat it as reality. It would save on confusion.
The men in the other chairs were fighters. This was obvious at a glance. To
Carroll's right there sat a Roman legionary. To his left sat a World War One corporal who seemed to have something wrong with his face. And there were more fighting men from the various ages of Earth, seated on wooden chairs on a steel plain that stretched to seeming infinity.
No horizon could be discerned though in one direction
the sun seemed to be setting. Carroll stared at it for a moment, is mind blank, then he drew his gaze away and saw that on the other side of the group the plain was paved with hexagons, each one a good twenty feet across. There were seven colours in all and they were arranged so that no two hexagons of the same colour met. They stretched into a distance without horizon.
All you men are fighters,’ said someone from the front of the group. ‘This will be plainly evident to those from the later eras, but needed to be stated for those from the younger ages of Earth.’
jerked as if catching himself drifting off during a briefing then peered past his fellows and saw what appeared to be a Prussian General in full regalia, his moustache waxed perfectly level, marching up and down as he lectured, a swagger stick tucked under his arm. As Carroll watched he realized that the man was not speaking English, but that the words were somehow being translated for him.
Play it cool
, he decided.
Listen to what he has to say then make decisions.
The General continued.
For this reason alone you have been resurrected,’ he said.
stiffened in shock, no longer cool.
Christ, yes! I was dead!
It had seemed a distant thing until then. He checked those around him and saw that they were reacting similarly. An SS officer leapt to his feet and shouted something, then suddenly others were doing the same. Carroll remained in his seat, taking deep breaths, calming himself.
Take it slowly: listen, learn, act.
‘Sit down!’ ordered the General, and made a stabbing motion with his swagger stick. All who had been standing were slammed down into their seats. Carroll felt himself pinioned by some force.
Now,’ continued the General, rolling one end of his waxed moustache between his fingertips, ‘you will listen to me, and when I have finished, there will be no questions, just obedience.’
Obey a God damned Prussian! Never!’ came a shout.
glanced aside and saw that this had come from a British Redcoat. Carroll transferred his attention back to the General to see what his reaction would be. The General stood motionless staring at something beyond the group. Carroll tried to turn his head but found he was unable to. Another member of the group shouted something, then another, and it seemed that cacophony would result, until the General gave his command.
Be silent!’ and he stabbed with his swagger stick.
And they were silent.
‘As I was saying,’ he continued, ‘you have been resurrected because you are fighters, resurrected to take part in the game...’ He looked from one face to another. No one said anything; no one was able to.
This is wrong. I am not reacting as I should.
Ephemeral thoughts. All he could do was sit and listen.
Look there,’ said the General, and pointed with his swagger stick. Without volition Carroll turned to look where indicated, as did the rest of the group. He now saw where the plain was paved with that patchwork of coloured hexagons.
That is where the game takes place,’ the General continued. ‘The rules, so far as you men are concerned, are simply that you occupy the hexagons indicated to you by the colour of the light set in your wrist-band...’ Carroll knew what was coming.
he thought. He wondered how this was being translated to the Roman, to the Turag, and to those others of races and from ages he did not know. ‘...should you encounter anyone in the hexagon you are moved to you must kill them with the weapons provided. Further instructions will be communicated to you via the translator communicators in your ears.’ He paused and Carroll found the restraint on his head released. He turned to face forwards. The General stood before them with his arms akimbo and his expression grim. ‘Disobedience is punishable by the offender being burnt to death.’
I am in Hell,
The General continued relentlessly,
‘And it would be well for you to all remember that no punishment here is final. Immediately after punishment the offender will be resurrected to take his place in the game.’
I am definitely in Hell...
‘Now, one last thing. You are a team, and there are three other teams.’ He pointed directly across the game-board. ‘Across there is Anubis's team. To the right is Kali's team, and to the left is the team of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. You men are the Reaper's team.’
So I am in Hell and doomed to fight or burn. I shall fight.
‘A number and a colour will now appear on your wrist bands, this directs you to your starting hexagons. Take your positions.’
felt all hold on him released. He stood and swayed and knew in an instant that in some way his emotions had been suppressed. He peered at his wrist. On it he wore a chrome band with no discernible joint. It had a square glass set in it like a watch face. This glass was red and had on it the number four. Carroll checked towards the game-board then back towards the General, who seemed expectant as he surveyed the group intently. Carroll wondered how he would fare if he attacked the man now, at the start. Before he could come to a decision the SS officer yelled and dived towards the General.
He never made it.
A flash of red light knocked the officer out of the air. He hit the steel screaming and writhing as flame and oily smoke gusted about him in the spastic thrashing of his limbs. Shortly his movements slowed and his screams turned to gurgles. On his hands and knees he shook himself like a dog then collapsed, a blackened atomy, with pink and oozing flesh showing through its many splits and cracks.
was what the General was waiting for.
Carroll realized this he felt the last mental restraint fall from him. He stopped himself from retching as emotion started to fill out the skeletal functioning of his mind. He saw that others had been unable to. The General had not changed his position in the slightest. He just stood there with a wry smile on his face, slowly twisting his moustache between his fingertips. After a moment he stopped this and gazed at something behind them all.
That was the object lesson,’ he said, ‘one that never fails to impress. Now you may turn and face your master.’
turned, something he had not even thought to do a moment earlier. He realized that this had all been perfectly choreographed to bring them to an understanding of the reality of their situation. He turned, and felt his mouth go dry.
Slightly to the right
, and a short distance away, stood a blocky flat-topped mirror glass building. To the left stood a machine vaguely like rocket engine ripped out of a Saturn Five then inset with a door. Carroll hardly noticed them. His attention fixed on the massive throne directly in front of them, and the cowled figure seated upon it. The figure's skull face was only half hidden in shadow, and in its right, skeletal hand, it held an enormous scythe. Here then, was the Grim Reaper. Carroll watched as it deposited a small red disk into a box set in the arm of its throne. It then regarded them all with hollow eye sockets, before with a rattle of bony knuckles it gestured to the strangely-shaped machine. The thick fridge-like door of the machine thumped open with a gout of vapour to spill the naked form of the SS officer, his expression haunted and half mad.